Friday, December 23, 2016

Carrying Advent

Carrying Advent

Sunday morning sanctuary
People dotting the pews
Sitting back
Leaning forward
Pulled inward
Cautious and content
Saddened and shaken
Neutral and numbed
Voices raised
Candles ablaze
Prayers for peace, joy, love,
Swirling around us
Up and over our heads

Thursday morning sanctuary
Silent and cold
Empty pews stare up
At an empty cross
Wind howling outside
Blackened wicks inside
Stiffened wax
In purple and pink
Clinging to candleside
Waiting for the light to come
The light that will warm
And soften
What has grown hard

Everyday sanctuary
Carried in our hearts
Where the flame
Forever burns
Forever warms
Even when we can no longer
See it
Or feel it
Or imagine it
The light
of God
is always there

Carrying Advent
To us
And with us
Wherever we may be.

Photo by Adam Hawkes

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon: "Mary, Did You Know?"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 11, 2016 – Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:46-55

“Mary, Did You Know?”

On Wednesday evening I was upstairs in the third floor youth room with members of our Christian Education team going through the costumes for next Sunday’s intergenerational Christmas Pageant.

We pulled out old boxes and clear plastic bins containing the remnants of Christmas pageants past.
We found the usual assortment of shepherd’s robes and head scarves,
many of which have been lovingly crafted from discarded tablecloths, curtains, and dishtowels.
We found angel halos made of silver and gold garland,
and angel wings made with real feathers that unfortunately have begun to molt, leaving a trail of white tufts across the carpet.
And we found an odd assortment of animal costumes –
fuzzy sheep hats, cow print robes, mouse ears, and cat tails.
Because no nativity scene is complete without a dairy cow, a herd of stray cats, and a smattering of field mice.

We set aside one of the nicer more brightly colored shepherds robes for Joseph, recognizing that he needs to stand out in the crowd of field hands.
But then we pondered what to do about Mary.
Our usual Mary costume consists of three plain pieces of fabric in varying shades of blue that get draped, tucked, and bobby pinned onto the girl chosen to be Mary in such a way that one would never know that the elaborate costume consisted of just 3 simple pieces of cloth.
Talk about an immaculate conception.

But to simplify things for this year’s impromptu pageant, we took a leap of faith and ordered a new Mary costume out of a Christian supply catalog.
Unfortunately what we received was a light blue satin dress with sparkly gold trim running up and down the front and around the sleeves.
It would have been perfect  - if Mary were a Disney Princess. 

But in the end we decided to stick with the simple blue swaths of cloth that are more befitting of a young peasant girl, even if she is the Mother of God.

Of course, it is the baby Jesus who is rightfully at the center of every Nativity scene and every Christmas pageant, but in many ways it is Mary who holds our attention until the final act.

She is the one we see approached with a proposition by the Angel Gabriel.
She is the one who goes into labor on a cold night far away from her home.
She is the one who gives birth to the savior of the world.

Mary plays a prime roll in the nativity story, but we catch only small glimpses of her in the rest of the Jesus story we have in our gospels. 

In Luke’s gospel, we see her anxiously fretting when 12-year-old Jesus goes missing on a journey home from Jerusalem, and we then witness her publically scolding him when he turns up in the Temple oblivious to the worry he has caused her.

In John’s gospel, it is Mary who prematurely prompts Jesus’ first miracle, when she complains to him that the wine they had on hand for their wedding guests was beginning to run low.  Jesus’ curt response to his mother before he turned the water into wine was, “Woman, it is not yet my time.”

In Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus is surrounded by an ever growing crowd of admirers, he is told, “Your mother and brothers are waiting outside and wish to see you.”
But Jesus waves them off by saying, “My family is right here before me, in all of you who follow God.”

The last image we have of Mary is of her kneeling in anguish at the foot of the cross. Jesus looked towards his young disciple, John, and said, “Woman this is now your son.” It was his dying attempt to reassure his mother that the young man would take her into his care, and she would not be alone.
As if this would mean anything to her in the rawness of her grief. 

We have to wonder if Mary knew that this is was the life she was signing up for, when the Angel Gabriel came to her when she was an unmarried teenager and told her she had been chosen to give birth to the Messiah.

Did she know it would be a life of worry, rejection, and pain?

Regardless of what we believe about angelic visitations or how Jesus came to be conceived, when Mary discovered that she was pregnant, and sang the Magnificat – a song of rejoicing – we have to wonder if she had any inkling of what the future held.

I believe she did.
Mary sang of a future world where God’s love would reign.
She sang of a world where the powerful would be brought down from their thrones and the lowly would be lifted up beside them.
Where the hungry would be filled and the rich would be sent away empty.
Where the proud would be scattered – and the meek – including young women like Mary – would be called blessed, for generations to come.

It’s no mystery where Jesus got his strong convictions and his passion for justice, given the song his mother sang when he was still growing in her womb.

Even as a teenager, Mary was a prophet in her own right, speaking about issues of inequality, tyranny, and oppression.

When we hear the Magnificat, we might rightfully assume that Mary was not a simple young girl who concerned herself only with young girlish things – working by her mother’s side – baking bread, weaving baskets, washing clothes, sweeping out the living areas of their home.

While the boys her age sat at their rabbis feet learning how to recite the Torah and engage in theological discussions, Mary must have been leaning in to listen – to the words of Isaiah – the teachings of the wisdom writers – the songs of David – the call of the prophet Micah, who asked, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

I believe that Mary did know what she was getting herself into when she said “Yes” to being the mother of Jesus. 

She already knew a life of hardship and pain.
She had to know that anyone who came to challenge a system that benefited the rich and the powerful would not be greeted with open arms.
Mary was young, but she was not naïve, the Magnificat tells us that.

Mary sings in the face of suffering.
She finds joy in a world that has not yet been redeemed.
She finds hope in a future that she may not live to see.
Because she knows that the baby that is growing inside of her will plant the seeds that will change the hearts of men and women for generations to come.

But there are some things about the future that I suspect Mary would not know if we had the chance to ask her.

Mary, did you know that one day your Magnifcat, your song of joy and justice – would come to be banned in some countries because it was considered to be “subversive, politically dangerous" and "might incite oppressed people to riot"?

Mary, did you know that your iconic image would come to be emblazoned upon and worshiped in stained glass windows, in stone garden statues, in plastic dashboard decorations, and in grilled cheese sandwiches?

Mary, did you know that religious tradition filtered through a patriarchal lens would come to hold you up as an example of the perfect woman?
Perfectly obedient.
Perfectly pure and untainted.
Perfectly preserved and revered for your Sainthood, not for your humanness?

Mary, did you know that one day little girls all over the world would drape blue cloth over their heads and kneel at a manger, and imagine what it’s like to be you?

What it’s like to be strong while still being able to admit that they are fearful.
What it’s like to sing out with joy when the world is telling you there is no reason to be hopeful.
What it’s like to raise up your voice when everything about you says you should remain silent – because you are poor, female, Jewish, young, uneducated, unmarried, expendable.
What it’s like to take a tremendous leap of faith and say “Yes” to birthing God into our world.

Mary did you know that your words of joy and praise would still be recited and sung in churches like ours 2000 years after you breathed them into being – because we too feel your passion for justice, for joy, for peace, for God’s love come to life?

Next Sunday, during our intergenerational Christmas pageant, some lucky little girl is going to have the opportunity to be draped in those simple blue swaths of fabric and kneel before us all as Mary.
But we’ll have extra pieces of fabric on hand for any of you who would like join in and play Mary as well.

In the face of sorrow, grief, injustice, injury, illness, and all the other joy-sapping things that befall us as human beings may we embrace our inner Mary.

May we all know what it’s like to have her strength.
Her resilience.
Her faith. 
Her vision.
Her hopefulness.
Her joy.

May we all sing the Magnificat.
And rejoice
Because we have been chosen to give birth to God in the world.


Here is one of my favorite songs about Mary, by Patty Griffin... 
"While the angels are singin' his praises in a blaze of glory, Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place."